Gavin Bryars, The Sinking of the Titanic

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 04.04.12 in Reviews

The Sinking Of The Titanic

Gavin Bryars

This is the long-awaited reissue of an album Gavin Bryars originally released on Brian Eno’s short-lived but tremendously influential Obscure Music series in the mid ’70s. The two extended pieces that comprise The Sinking of the Titanic — the title track, and the astonishing “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” — marked Bryars as one of England’s most original and creative voices, and both works would go on to have lives of their own, eventually being released in hour-long versions on their own. (The “Jesus’ Blood…” re-recording even featured Tom Waits, a huge fan of the original.) In both cases, more was perhaps less. These original recordings, though, still pack an emotional wallop made all the more surprising because of the apparent simplicity of the material.

A mid-’70s reissue that still packs an emotional wallop

Although originally the B-side, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” was the piece that attracted the most attention. A simple loop of a homeless man singing a fragment of an old hymn tune repeats over and over (the recording had been discarded by a documentary film maker) and eventually instruments are added, one at a time, playing a restrained, elegant series of chords. When the whole band is finally playing, the piece, and the loop, fade away. Easy to describe, but impossible to explain, the work can be a profoundly moving experience.

“The Sinking of the Titanic” similarly involves voices, but here, the voices of Titanic survivors are barely heard, as they are float around the stereo field and are mixed deep inside Bryars’s moody electroacoustic textures. This work has many of Bryars’s signature sounds: A bassist himself, he is drawn towards the dark-hued instruments, and deep electronic drones and pedal tones. This work has also enjoyed a renaissance lately as a live performance piece.